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The Israelis and Palestinians Doing Ayahuasca Together

Some peace activists and researchers believe the powerful psychedelic can help build mutual reconciliation between the two communities.



When Hamas militants went on a vicious rampage in early October and killed more than 1,200 people, Israel retaliated with overwhelming force. Gaza was pummelled with air strikes and invaded by land, with over 11,000 Palestinians killed. Despite the recent announcement of a four-day ceasefire, it is hard to imagine a peaceful end to the war and the longstanding divisions.

But, under the radar and in recent years, some Israelis and Palestinians have found themselves in psychedelic ceremonies where they have drunk ayahuasca together, forging deep bonds that have been documented by researchers. Some now believe that group use of psychedelics may provide an opportunity for these communities to reconcile.

It may sound like hippie bullshit, but ayahuasca – an Amazonian ancestral medicine that contains the powerful psychedelic DMT, also known as the spirit molecule – could potentially offer insights into the nature of consciousness. Brain scans show it increases connectivity within the organ, and studies suggest it brings about life-changing insights while increasing compassion

Even before the most recent bombings, Palestinians effectively lived under a system of apartheid and did not often have the opportunity to mix with Israelis. Their lives, including places in Israel where Palestinians live permanently, are mostly separate. But, in 2018, neuroscientist and peace activist Dr Leor Roseman, then of Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research, began interviewing Israelis and Palestinians who had participated in ayahuasca rituals in mixed groups.

One particular story sticks in Roseman’s mind: An Israeli army veteran had a flashback during a ceremony from the perspective of a family whose house he raided to arrest a Palestinian man. He later reported he “felt the pain of that family” and that the vision had set in motion deep reflection. During the ceremony, he was sat alongside a group of Palestinians.  “They bonded over a song about a sacred connection to the land and became friends. Later on, he started learning Arabic [and] left the reserve army,” Roseman tells VICE. “Psychedelic insights, and breakthroughs, can ripple out into society.” 

Roseman’s study, published in Frontiers in Pharmacology in 2021, noted that the majority of the 31 interviewees said their ceremony experiences led them to relate with fellow participants on a level “beyond local collective identities”.

“We stop viewing each other as, you’re Israeli, or you are Palestinian,” one Arab-Palestinian participant recalled. A Jewish-Israeli woman said: “[We] really experienced this place in which the connection is not Israel-Palestinian, it is human, the human tribe.” One Palestinian man reported a vision from the perspective of a young Israeli soldier looking through the lens of a rifle, and feeling compassion for the teenage recruit. In his summary of the research, Roseman concluded: “It was argued that ayahuasca helped people soften their identity and bring people closer to the other culture and religion.”

Today, Roseman warns that the Hamas massacre and Israel’s onslaught on Gaza has left people “more entrenched with their narratives and ethos”, with many on both sides unable to look past violence as the solution. “It will continue in a vicious cycle: Both sides are accusing the other of wanting to annihilate them,” he tells VICE. 

Israeli politicians have insisted that attacks on Gaza are necessary to destroy Hamas and ensure it can never again strike at the heart of Israel, but human rights experts have warned that Israel may be perpetrating the mass ethnic cleansing – and even genocide – of Palestinians.

Israel’s understandable need for security cannot be secured at the expense of Palestinian liberty and equality, Roseman argues, adding that all initiatives that aim to bring the two groups together are extremely important, especially now. 

In spring 2022, inspired by the stories of the Palestinians and Israelis who had sat in psychedelic ceremonies together, Roseman, along with Palestinian peace activist Sami Awad and group therapist Armelle Lehman, organised three separate “peacebuilding” ayahuasca retreats for groups of Israelis and Palestinians. 

Some 15 Jewish Israelis and 18 Palestinians (ten from the West Bank, seven from Israel, and one diaspora) were flown out to Spain, where ayahuasca use has until recently been largely tolerated by authorities, to sit in a series of eight-day retreats which included ceremonies facilitated by a Brazilian medicine man and Palestinian medicine woman. Participants underwent a set of preparatory exercises, including visiting the Aida refugee camp in the West Bank and the separation wall between the West Bank and Bethlehem.

Weeks later, the first ayahuasca ceremony began at El Cielo de la Vera, a retreat centre nestled in the mountains outside of Extremadura, Spain. “There was a lot of collective trauma coming to the visions,” Roseman told an audience in Berkshire, England, at Medicine Festival, which works to raise awareness of the benefits of psychedelics, in August this year.

The ceremonies were cauldrons of catharsis. An Israeli woman had visions of the Holocaust and prayed “for the end of cycles of oppression”. A Jewish man hallucinated that he found a mass grave of his ancestors. A Palestinian woman said that she cried when she hugged an Israeli woman after one of the ceremonies, because it felt like the “dismantling of this tension and wall between us”. 

“We were both holding each other so that each of us could go through the process at the same time,” she told Roseman, who is preparing a formal academic study on the project. “I never was able to open my heart like that.”

Peace activists have historically organised demonstrations and delivered petitions. For some, the suggestion that psychedelics could serve a peacebuilding role in such an intractable, bloody conflict is considered laughable. 

No one is suggesting ayahuasca should be deployed by UN peacekeepers, but there is a long history of using radical new ideas to bring together people who may not have otherwise broken bread. Ayahuasca has been used in ceremonies in the Amazon attended by Indigenous and mestizo people “in reaction towards colonialism, in political ways,” Roseman has said, “both by creating strong group bonding and identity to resist the colonisers, but also in [the] attempt of building bridges.”

Sami Awad, who has been arrested, beaten up and threatened in the course of his work as a peace activist, believes that ayahuasca can help address the individual and collective trauma of those who have lived through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He first drank ayahuasca some 15 years ago. After entering “a deep healing space”, he says he accessed “a deeper understanding of peace work, a deeper acknowledgement of how to seek justice and a deeper realisation that we are all connected as one in love”. 

His “healing journey” encouraged him to invite other Palestinian activists to ayahuasca ceremonies, culminating in the recent ones in Spain he helped organise. The key proviso, for both Palestinians and Israelis, was that attendees had drunk ayahuasca before, to allow for more space for the peacebuilding work. They also had to answer a “spiritual questionnaire” that asked where their parents and grandparents had come from.

Palestinian peace activist Sami Awad and group therapist Armelle Lehman, two of the organisers of the retreat.

“It triggered in many Palestinians, and Israelis, stories of leaving their homeland as refugees, and their fear or loss being present in so many aspects of how they live their life today,” Awad said in a keynote speech alongside Roseman at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Psychedelic Science conference in June that his experiences provided him with. “This process took everything from under the rug and put everything out on the table. We became open, transparent and vulnerable to each other.”

The change in the groups before and after the ceremonies was palpable, Lehman tells VICE. “Both Israeli and Palestinian participants felt how their trauma is connected, and that there is no way of dealing with one collective trauma without dealing with the other,” she recalls. “I saw the intimacy between the people who came with us to Spain, and something changed. In societal terms, it's small, but one person can change the world.” 

Psychedelic ceremonies also offer Israelis and Palestinians a forum in which to meet and build friendships, and to be vulnerable in each other’s company, says Noam Enbar, an Israeli musician who participated in the retreats and played music. For Israelis and Palestinians to meet in a shared spiritual context is incredibly rare, he adds, given that the societies in which they live have been totally severed. “The segregation between people is so strong that I could count on one hand the number of people I know in Tel Aviv who have Arab friends.” 

Roseman, who has founded nonprofit Ripples to continue group psychedelic work with the aim of helping to resolve conflict, does acknowledge challenges. Some psychedelic users’ sense of alienation deepened after their return home. Holding a safe ceremony, with attendees supported in the days, weeks and months afterwards, is no mean feat, either. The creation of a momentary harmony between groups may conjure an illusion of equality, he adds: “You suddenly feel free but then you are returned to an oppressive reality.”

The Hamas attacks and the Israeli bombardment of Gaza will have left many on both sides implacably opposed to bridge building; no ayahuasca trip is going to change that. But Palestinian activist Sulaiman Khatib, who spent a decade in Israeli jail as a child for attacking two Israeli soldiers before becoming a peace advocate, says that there is still a desire for future work involving more people. 

“My experience was of very deep healing,” he tells VICE. “It brought up all kinds of triggers and challenges and crying together and different feelings. But this is about the healing journey we're going through. Everyone wished to have the opportunity for their beloved ones to join.”

As the temporary ceasefire takes hold, Roseman remains convinced that it is more important than ever to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, and that psychedelic peacebuilding could help achieve that. “If the practice of consuming ayahuasca has a political intention and challenges participants’ narratives,” he says, “then it can lead to change.”

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